26 December 2013 — It has been almost two years since Carlyle Norman perished on the south side of St. Exupery in the Patagonian Andes. Since that time she rarely escapes my thoughts, particularly as I wrestle with fear, doubt and objective hazards as I climb. Her philosophies on risk and climbing are etched into my subconscious. The choices consciously made by her and those with whom she climbed are theirs and theirs alone. One can speculate all day, playing what if. Today as I wandered up the Wanganui Valley in New Zealand’s Westland Alps, she once again came to the forefront of my mind.
I have written much about her death and its impacts on my mates. Since that fateful January 17th I have scaled a handful more peaks in Patagonia and been witness to much large and small scale rockfall both on the mountains and in camp. I have travelled deep into the Wind Rivers and floated the Labyrinth Canyon on Utah’s Green River. I have wandered deep into New Zealand’s Southern Alps to have looks around and scaled front country big walls in Zion Canyon. Through it all I have intentionally chosen to carry either a cell phone, PLB or satellite phone. Intentionally eschewing the safety net of a PLB and a satellite or cell phone in the name of adventure is not something I do. Until today that is, or rather several days ago when Amy and I left Richmond on our road trip. I thought about asking her if we could use a NOLS PLB but decided that NOLS wouldn’t want that so I cast away the idea. This morning however, as we made our way up the Wanganui, a wasp buzzed my head as we passed a stand of beech trees and I remembered that we did not have that safety net.
Up until several decades ago adventurers and explorers did not have that safety net either. The casualty counts from some of those explorations and expeditions reflect that. With the technology available at the time, those deaths may have been acceptable collateral damage or the cost of doing business. Today, however, the technology exists to give us instant communication with the “outside world.” Does that make me, or anyone else using modern communication tools riskier? The theory of risk homeostasis would argue yes. Common sense would tell us that when advances in equipment create a greater measure of safety (i.e. avalanche beacons, seat belts or PLBs) deaths from these activities should decrease. Risk homeostasis however explains why they don’t. We as humans are used to an acceptable level of risk, whether it is with our money, our health, our work, our leisure time or daily activities. When something decreases this level of risk, people often crank up the activity level so that they are once again, back at their appropriate level of risk. That could look like driving faster, skiing a more avalanche prone line, or not telling someone their plans for an adventure. So while the equipment is nice to have and gives an added measure of security, it does nothing to change the objective hazard of a situation. An avy beacon won’t make a slope more stable or a PLB stop a rock from falling. We all have acceptable levels of risk that we continually operate within. When we fall below that level, life is boring. When we exceed that level, life gets scary.
Maybe I do not have accurate self-awareness but for me a PLB or other emergency communication device is not about making a harder move or doing a dodgier river crossing. To me it is about an appendicitis, an unforeseen allergic reaction, or other spontaneous objective event. Professionally these devices are so common for me that they offer an unthought of level of comfort. That is until I do not have them. Recently NOLS NZ forgot to pay the satellite phone bill and service was cut off. As I sat out in the mountains and attempted to make a scheduled call, I found myself a bit miffed that the service was out. I did not know the cause, but with nine students under my care, I felt reassured by the PLB we carried and could not help but think back to when our evacuation plan was to hike to the road and go make a phone call. And now moving over the rough rocky track that guards the access to the Garden of Eden Ice Plateau, with only one partner, I feel the remoteness once again.
Tomorrow, Amy and I venture further afield, moving up onto the Lambert Tops. Throughout it all our objectives are flexible. The Lambert Tops to the Lamber Ice Field has changed to the Garden via the Lambert Tops, Adam’s Flat, and the Aerthusa Ice Fall which changed to Lambert Tops, Adam’s Flat and Mt Kensington and finally to Lambert Tops and Mt Lambert. Our plans modify as they should with weather and physical conditions. But our trip plan as given out to friends is no longer accurate. The objective hazards of tomorrow’s attempt of Mount Lambert include weather, steep terrain, crevasses and loose rock. Subjectively we are looking at inexperience and summit fever; this is our last shot an alpine experience in New Zealand. We are on our own. It is a long walk out and there is only two of us. Would someone chastise us for not having a device? Carlyle and Cian’s motives were questioned. Could one be held liable for negligence by not having a device? The answer is probably yes on both counts. Explaining to a partner’s family member why we chose not to have a communication device though would be even worse.
As we move through the rugged terrain I think about the pros and cons of technology. I think about being dependent on other’s for it. We move slowly up the mountain and then make our way cautiously back down. Sometimes I reassure myself with the thought that Amy does not have an appendix and the idea that that is one less thing that can go wrong. And I debate preemptive removal of mine. By the time we emerge from the bush and toss our sopping wet clothing and packs into the little red Toyota I have decided that I will rely on other’s for my recreational technology just a little bit longer; I will ask for a PLB for my birthday.